DOES THE NT TEACH GRADUAL VICTORY?

Trickle waterPMT 2015-085 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

A reader has sent me a very perceptive email that well deserves my attention. And I think answering it will prove valuable to you in your postmillennial study as I engage the question it presents. He writes:

“Reflecting on Isaiah 11 —— ‘The Peaceable Kingdom.’ If we take that to be a portrait of the ‘post-millennial’ millennium, then I would find its New Testament counterpart in Romans 8 (redemption of all creation).

But — here’s the question — apart from 1 Corinthians 15 (‘and he must reign…’) and The Parable of the Mustard Seed and leaven in the lump, I see very little in the New Testament itself which seems to envision the slow growth of the kingdom resulting in a victorious display within an historic millennium.

I don’t, for example, see anything in the Pauline corpus (or other NT letters) which looks forward to ‘the Peaceable Kingdom’ within history, no references or allusions in the NT to Isaiah 11 and others like it (e.g., Isaiah 35) as developing within history (other than the historical earthly ministry of Jesus himself).

It seems to me that the predominant mood in the NT is ‘the eager expectation’, waiting for ‘the appearing of our great God and Savior’, and the hope for ‘the glory that is yet to be revealed…’

Sounds rather ‘sudden’ (not gradual) to me.”

Now, for my reply.

Thanks for your inquiry. It shows deep thought and strongly biblical concerns. As I read your inquiry I see your major concern as one which is being fed by four subsidiary questions. Your main concern appears to be that the NT does not seem to expect a gradual development of peace on earth as a consequence of Christ’s kingdom Rather it apparently looks to a sudden coming of kingdom victory at the end of history when the consummate order is established.

In answering your concern, I will first highlight these sub-questions. Then having these out front, I will answer your concerns in the course of a several-part study. In doing so I hope to show that postmillennialism is not undermined by this major question with its inter-related matters.

The Underlying Concerns

As I read this inquiry, it seems that the subsidiary concerns underlying your main question are:

1. Does Isa 11 find its counterpart in Rom 8 and the redemption of all creation? That is, does it find its fulfillment in the consummate order rather than in the temporal order to unfold before Christ’s second advent?

2. Does the NT see the peaceable kingdom imagery (such as found in Isa 11 and 35) occurring prior to Christ’s return in glory?

3. Does the NT envision slow growth for this kingdom?

4. Does not the NT call us to expect God’s kingdom to appear suddenly?

The relationship of Isa 11 and Rom 8

Most evangelicals agree that Isa 11 is a Messianic prophecy, not one that pictures Hezekiah’s reign or some other OT-era fulfillment. I will work on this Messianic assumption, which is obviously the conviction of my inquirer.

In this prophecy Isaiah presents Christ as arising from the reduction of the Davidic line to a stump (Isa 11:1). And it promises that he will bring righteous judgment for the poor and the afflicted (Isa 11:4a). Then it sees this as resulting in a world in which the wolf, leopard, and lion will dwell peaceably with the lamb, goat and calf. Which being interpreted means: he sees Christ’s rule as judging righteously even for the poor of the world (who are so often oppressed by the wealthy rulers, cp. Isa 1:23; 5:23; 10:2) and as bringing peace to in its wake (as pictured by the loss of the natural enmity between carnivores and herbivores).

Furthermore, all evangelicals would agree that Paul’s teaching on the consummate order — our final estate in the new heavens and new earth — is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom prophecy. When Christ returns to end history and establish the final order, sin will be banished and perfect holiness and righteous will remain forevermore.

And as my inquirer surmises, Rom 8:18–25 does speak of the coming final, perfect order. This renewed order comes as a consequence of the future resurrection, which effects the redemption of the body and its final release from sin (Rom 8:23). And I as a postmillennialist agree with this, as well.


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But before I engage the possible negative implications of Rom 8 for postmillennial gradualism (i.e., the slow progress of Christ’s kingdom to victory in history), I would like to offer a brief analysis of the relevant portion of Isa 11. Postmillennialists recognize and can account for the catastrophic language of the suddenness of Christ’s rule, despite its looking like it comes in a moment at the end, rather than developing slowly over time.

Reflections on Isa 11 itself

The prophetic narrative of Isa 11 follows upon that presented in Isa 10. In that chapter God is speaking of Assyria (Isa 10:5, 12, 24). And he is promising Israel that he will destroy this evil oppressor. The language he uses in the final words of his prophecy serve as a segue into our “peaceable kingdom” prophecy in Isa 11. For in Isa 10:33–34 Assyria’s judgment is pictured as a cutting down of a lofty tree. And in the prophecy It is cut down “by the Mighty One,” and that is it. Assyria is to be destroyed.

However, when we enter Isa 11 Isaiah reflects on Israel’s dire circumstances that have resulted from Assyria’s oppression: her glorious Davidic line has been reduced to a stump, virtually cut down to its roots. Yet this is not Israel’s final death knell. The prophecy does not end with the stump; in fact, it starts there.

Though David’s kingly line has been cut down to the root, it will spring forth anew. Isaiah puts it thus: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, / And a branch from his roots will bear fruit” (Isa 11:1). This, of course, is a Messianic prophecy that speaks of Christ’s coming in the first century.

As a result of the renewal of Jesse’s line in the Branch (Christ), justice will prevail (Isa 11:3–4a) because righteousness will characterize him (Isa 11:5). And peace will be effected among natural enemies (Isa 11:6–8) so that “they will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, / For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD / As the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9).


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Sub-title 10 Ways the ACLU is Destroying America
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But now what about the matter of a catastrophic coming as over against postmillennialism’s gradualistic development? After all, does not the prophecy add this catastrophic note: “He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, / And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked” (Isa 11:4b)? This sounds like the sudden coming of Christ at the second advent wherein he brings in the perfect, peaceful, perpetual order. How can this speak of slow, unfolding progress over time?

I would note that this prophecy clearly has gradualism built into it. We may see that on at least two lines of evidence. (1) As the prophecy opens Israel is lying in destruction and despair under the dominion of Assyria. Yet Isaiah promises her that God will renew the stump-stem of Jesse. This promised renewal speaks of the future (first century) coming of Christ several hundred years later. Thus, this prophecy is not fulfilled all at once and catastrophically for the people who originally hear it as a word of encouragement. (2) The language of the prophecy in Isa 11:1 suggests gradualism. It speaks of a root branch that “will bear fruit.” And fruit production from a felled tree naturally takes time.

But what of the statement about his striking the earth and slaying the wicked (Isa 11:4)? The dramatic destruction pictured here speaks of its certainty rather than its suddenness. The just order Christ brings in will have power and will gain the victory. Mighty Assyria exercised power by the sword, but the Branch of Jesse has such power that he can destroy with the mere breath of his mouth, i.e., by his mere word. Christ’s kingdom does not need sharp arrows, bent bows, flint-like hooves of horses, or chariot wheels like a whirlwind (Isa 5:28).

In the dramatic image of Isa 11:4b the prophet is not concerned with the question of the development or timing of Christ’s kingdom, but with the certainty of its victory — whenever and however it does come. He is comparing and contrasting the present status of the Davidic line with its future glory. As Hengstenberg puts it: “Before those who were filled with cares and fears lest the Davidic Kingdom should be overturned by the Assyrian kingdom, he holds up the bright image of the Kingdom of David, in its last completion” (Christology of the Old Testament, 1:458).

In this comparison he holds up the great glory of Christ’s kingdom as he pictures it in its earthly fulness. Though this is not emphasized in this passage (such is not Isaiah’s concern), postmillennialists believe that this comes gradually over time, like fruit slowly growing up out of felled tree’s root.

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